Chipotle’s E. Coli Outbreak: How Bad Press Affects Consumer Sentiment

editorial video e. coli food safety.jpg

Big brands face bad press all the time. But what if that so-called bad press is not only true, but also harmful to consumers? Food safety has been brought into a brighter light for years, and for good reason. As the food system becomes more transparent and the connection of production to restaurant kitchen becomes a more direct process, it’s become as important as ever to ensure producers, farms, and kitchens are not only up to brand standard, but also up to code.

We’ve seen this transparency come through with many states’ decision to post health code statuses in the form of letter grades on restaurant doors. After all, this could affect a diner’s decision of whether to eat at an establishment.

However, there will always be things — sometimes beyond a restaurant’s direct control — that inevitably slip through the cracks. 

Today, news broke that Costco found a new E. coli strain (E. coli O157) in its rotisserie chicken salad, and it's a story that Chipotle knows all too well.

E. Coli Invasion

The Fresh Mex chain, often referred to as the Golden Child of Fast Casual, is undoubtedly a favorite among on-the-go consumers. Recently, the brand was linked to a handful of E. coli (E. coli O26) cases throughout the country — beginning in the Pacific Northwest, with later cases found in places like New York, Ohio, and California. In total, there were found to be just over 40 E. coli cases linked to Chipotle, all but one within the timeframe of late October.

According to the Chipotle website, the brand dealt with the incident thoroughly throughout each infected location: 

“Since this issue began, Chipotle conducted deep cleaning at the restaurants that have been linked to this incident, replaced ingredients in those restaurants, changed food preparation procedures, provided all necessary supply chain data to investigators, and surveyed employees to be sure none had E. coli.”

No employees were found with E. coli. And in cities with locations where the E. coli strand was found, Chipotle voluntarily decided to close all units in those cities.

Measures have also been taken to prevent future outbreaks. The chain is reportedly examining all of its food-safety procedures, testing key ingredients, and “working with two renowned food safety scientists to assess all of its food safety programs, from the farms that provide our food to our restaurants.”

Will This Impact Sales?

While Chipotle has ensured guests that preventative measures have been taken, we can’t help but wonder whether this might affect consumer sentiment toward the restaurant chain. Of course, consumer sentiment often directly translates to whether that consumer is willing to pay up and give a brand their business, impacting sales.

So we went to Seattle — one of the cities where E. coli was found — to ask everyday consumers about their dining habits, food safety perception, and their thoughts on the Chipotle issue. Does bad press like this really deter customers from staying loyal to a brand?

A Rough Quarter for Chipotle

While this incident falls in Q4 2015, Chipotle also had a rough quarter previously. In Q3, the burrito giant was hit with a class-action lawsuit [video] due to “false advertising” of its GMO-free marketing, despite the fact that there are still offerings at Chipotle that include GMOs, like soda. This had a heavy impact on the brand’s ranking in Foodable’s Top 25 National Restaurant Brands for Q3 2015. In Q2, Chipotle stood tall on the ranking at No. 3 with a Social Score of 446.11, but in Q3, it fell out of the Top 10 at No. 11 with a Social Score of 428.58.

While Chipotle did not give Foodable a response for how the E. coli outbreak will affect Chipotle’s relationships with regional producers or how it might change employee training, readers can check out the updates on Chipotle’s website here. As of time of publish, there is still no known cause for the E. coli, something Chipotle is still looking into.